Last Updated: Sep 8, 2020
Ah, the college search. One of the most exciting and confusing times of your life so far, this is your chance to decide what route you want to take after graduation. And if you’re like me, you need the tips and advice you can get! A lot of factors go into the college search, so where do you start? Well, here are 20 things that I did—or wish I would have done—that really helped me in my college search and on my path of choosing a university. I hope you find these tips helpful!
The best thing you can do to kick off your college search is to start now! Figuring out what you’re looking for in schools and creating a list of colleges you’re interested in early on will help you save time, money, and stress in the future.
Don’t make your college choices based on your friends or parents
As fun as it can be to experience college with your friends, don’t choose your school simply because it’s where your friends are going. Part of the fun of college is meeting new people and growing into yourself, so make the experience your own!
Just like you shouldn’t go to a college because your friend is going, you shouldn’t attend a school just because your parents want you to. After all, it’s your college education and future, and it’s an opportunity for you to grow and be independent. Granted, depending on your situation, you will probably need to discuss your college reasoning with your parents and hear their points of view. If they’re paying for it, you all need to be on the same page (or at least a similar page). But don’t give up on a school you’re interested in just because it’s not your parents’ first choice!
You might be drawn to some schools—schools that just feel right to you—and that is something to think about in your college search. Those schools will speak to you for a reason, so trust your gut and look into them further. (Also trust your gut if you’re really not into a college or university!)
Make a list of what you’re looking for in a college
Think about what is really important to you. Sit down and make a list of things you want in a college (size, distance from home, athletics, and academics are all things that you should be considering) and use that list to narrow down your college options. Be honest with yourself, and keep your list handy whenever you’re looking at a school to decide whether or not it is really for you!
Be proud of your accomplishments
Especially when it comes to the college application process, be open and proud about the things you accomplished! A teacher once told me that if it’s true, it’s not bragging. So use the things you’re interested in and good at to help you make your college decisions and set your applications apart!
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Your high school counselors, teachers, parents, and college admission counselors are there to help you with any college search and application questions you may have. And if you want to know more about something specific a college offers, like a major, you can also look on the school’s website to find someone to talk to.
Research your schools
Don’t go into college application season blind. Research all of the colleges you are interested in, and apply to the schools that match your needs and interests. (Pro tip: you can use this college search spreadsheet to keep track of your research!)
Start applying for scholarships
(even if you don’t know where you’re going). Most private scholarships don’t require you to know exactly where you’re going to college. Start searching for and applying for scholarships as early as you can, so you’ll have a better chance of winning some money before it’s time to go to college. You should also start saving ASAP. Get smart with budgeting and spending your money wisely in general. You’re about to not have a whole lot of it…
Talk to your college friends
If you know people in college, ask them about it, especially if it’s a school you are considering. Reach out to them to ask your questions and get their top college search tips! Ask them how they like the campus, atmosphere, academics, and more. Hearing personal experiences from people you know can give you a unique perspective about a potential college.
Narrow down your college choices
It may not be in your best interest (or your wallet’s) to apply to every college you cross paths with. While you search, narrow your choices down to the schools that check most if not all of your boxes. (I applied to four schools, and it made my decision so much easier.) Some may recommend applying for at least one reach (slightly above your academic credentials), one target (at your academic level), and one safety (slightly below your academic credentials), but feel free to apply to as many schools as you connect with.
Consider your learning style
How do you learn best? If you need one-on-one time with a teacher, you may be happier at smaller colleges with smaller class sizes. If you’re more independent, you may do better in large lecture halls. Or maybe you want something really different, like focusing on one class at a time at a college with a unique academic calendar?! At any rate, consider the way you learn best when looking at colleges and universities.
Since you will be spending a lot of time outside of class, look for campus groups and activities you’re interested in when you’re researching colleges. Find schools with activities that match your interests, and you will learn lots of new things and make all kinds of new friends in college!
Make sure your colleges have different things you want to study
If you have an idea of what you want to study, obviously look for that major. But even if you’re unsure, check out all the majors a college offers and what their top-rated programs are. Make sure they have majors you like (including backup options). The worst thing you can do is apply to a college that doesn’t have what you want to study!
Tour the campus if at all possible
If you can tour the colleges and universities you’re considering, do it! The best way to get the feel for a school is to go and see what they really have to offer, preview what your life might be like there, and experience the way the campus connects with you. (If you can’t afford campus visits at all, read this advice.)
Read the pamphlets you get in the mail
You will most likely get brochures, emails, and other marketing materials from different colleges telling you why you should attend their school. Before you chuck them, take a minute to at least look at them to see what you do and don’t like. And if a school you’re really interested in doesn’t send you a pamphlet or brochure, request information from them! (Psst! You can do that on CollegeXpress! Just click the “Yes, connect me!” button on any featured college profile page.)
Work hard for your high school grades
As important as it is to find colleges that work for you, remember that you still have to apply before you can become a part of their student body. Keep your grades up and study so you don’t have to weed out schools because they are too out of reach for you academically.
Consider the pros and cons
As you are searching for colleges, make a list of pros and cons about each school. This will help you look at a school more objectively and decide whether or not it is really for you. This will also come in handy when acceptance letters start coming in and you need to decide which college you are going to attend!
Talk to admission staff before applying
Whether you’re requesting information, asking questions, or voicing concerns, one of the best things you can do before applying to a college or university is to talk to their admission staff. Find out what they look for in an application essay, what courses they require or recommend, or even what their favorite things about the school are! (You can also ask similar questions during your campus visits.) This will help you decide whether or not the school is right for you and give you an idea of what to keep in mind when you’re filling out the application.
The best thing you can do for your college search? Go for it! Don’t be afraid to ask questions, push yourself, or look at schools you think might be out of your reach. You are in such an exciting point in your life; make the most of it and, above all, have fun!
Looking for more advice on the college search? Find awesome content in our College Admission section!